Michael Chabon asks "What's the Point?"
September 30, 2019 2:22 PM   Subscribe

"These feel like such dire times, times of violence and dislocation, schism, paranoia, and the earth-scorching politics of fear. Babies have iPads, the ice caps are melting, and your smart refrigerator is eavesdropping on your lovemaking (and, frankly, it’s not impressed).

It has all seemed to fall apart so quickly. Looking around, it’s hard not to wonder who or what is to blame. I think it might be me. No, hear me out...."

"Or, I wonder if it’s possible that I was wrong, that I’ve always been wrong, that art has no power at all over the world and its brutalities, over the minds that conceive them and the systems that institutionalize them. Those folks I cited earlier, the ones who offer their grim reassurances that the world has always sucked as much as it does now, in particular for women, the poor, the disenfranchised, the enslaved, the downtrodden, and the exploited, these folks might point out that art and misery have coexisted for the whole span of human existence on earth, and suggest that perhaps the time to abandon hope for the redemptive power of art is long overdue.

Or maybe the purpose of art, the blessing of art, has nothing to do with improvement, with amelioration, with making this heartbreaking world, this savage and dopey nation, a better place.

Maybe art just makes the whole depressing thing more bearable."
posted by dnash (34 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
Dang, Chabon can write. I have always loved his fiction since the day I chose The Mysteries of Pittsburgh at City Lights in San Francisco — based on the title alone — to read on a flight to Pittsburgh to visit my family at Christmas. An auspicious coincidence for which I am grateful. Plus his Instagram feed is lovely.

Going to go read the linked piece again.
posted by terrapin at 2:36 PM on September 30, 2019 [5 favorites]


“Maybe art just makes the whole depressing thing more bearable.”

Art and love. The love of those who you wake up for. I call them "take a brick to the head" kind of people. Those that would take a brick to the head for you and not question that decision. This was a good read. I found myself nodding along because I've also felt this kind of despair. Sometimes it's helpful to just write it all out and get it out of your system as Chabon acknowledges at the end of this essay:
“I feel a little better than I did when I started. The hell with fascism. The hell with bigotry and paranoia. The hell with fools falling for the lies of charlatans; that’s what fools do. We’re just going to keep on doing what we do: Making and consuming art. Supporting the people who remind us that we are in this together. We are each only one poem, one painting, one song away from another mind, another heart. It’s tragic that we need so much reminding. And yet we have, in art, the power to keep reminding each other.”
posted by Fizz at 2:40 PM on September 30, 2019 [18 favorites]


We told every single one of those three thousand artists, sincerely, that their work was important. We kept the internet at bay. We kept their friends and families at bay. We kept the world at bay, so that when their time here was up, they would return to that world fortified, in fuller possession of an authentic vision, and maybe even with a little bit of swagger in their souls.

well, clearly, they have tried their very best to make art accessible and meaningful to the unwashed masses. I guess it cannot be done
posted by prize bull octorok at 2:48 PM on September 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


He's the reason I have SOME hope for Picard.
posted by Twinge at 2:59 PM on September 30, 2019 [7 favorites]



I do blame Michael Chabon, but mostly just for being the sort of self-important neurotic who writes the things he writes,

I quite enjoyed Wonder Boys (the movie) which means the book was at least good enough to inspire it. Otherwise, everything of his that I have read (Pittsburgh, Kavalier, Yiddish Policemen) just hasn't been up to hype that recommended it. I ended up skimming.

As for this apparently dire jeremiad, spoiler alert -- it doesn't actually end that despairingly.

And what is that truth, the truth of art, that freeing blade, that slaking drink in the desert of the world? It’s this: You are not alone. I am not I; you are not you. We are we. Art bridges the lonely islands. It’s the string that hums from my tin can, over here looking out of my little window, to you over there, looking out of yours. All the world’s power over us lies in its ability to persuade us that we are powerless to understand each other, to feel and see and love each other, and that therefore it is pointless for us to try. Art knows better, which is why the world tries so hard to make art impossible, to immiserate artists, to ban their work, silence their voices, and why it’s so important for all of us to, quite simply, make art possible.

Hey, maybe that would make a good slogan.


So ... whatever. Maybe what we really need to be doing is looking past comparatively pleasing and successful literary novelists for the kind of cultural stuff that will give us the nutrition we need to get through these challenging times.
posted by philip-random at 3:01 PM on September 30, 2019 [3 favorites]


He's not the only one who writes pretty but inconsequential things who is questioning everything these days.
posted by zerolives at 3:07 PM on September 30, 2019 [13 favorites]


I really thought maybe today was going to break me, and it's like Michael Chabon reached down a hand that I could grasp firmly and said, "Not today."
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 3:16 PM on September 30, 2019 [14 favorites]


I do blame Michael Chabon, but mostly just for being the sort of self-important neurotic who writes the things he writes

He's not the only one who writes pretty but inconsequential things

Call me crazy, but I thought reading his stuff was ... optional?
I have not read his work. Amusingly, to me at least, I initially read it as a FPP about Michael Gambon and was gobsmacked that that dude I remembered from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (among other films) could be such a powerful actor and also write.
posted by Bella Donna at 3:16 PM on September 30, 2019 [11 favorites]


And yet here we are, nine years into my tenure, and not only is the world not a better place—it has, in so many ways, gotten so much worse. I mean, really, what other conclusion is there? I’m sorry. Don’t hate me. I tried.

Time to try something else, then? If he's serious, which I can't really tell from the essay, maybe there are other ways he could put those new skills at fundraising and organizing to use.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:17 PM on September 30, 2019 [2 favorites]


This is a lovely, helpful, hopeful piece - thanks for posting it.
posted by PhineasGage at 3:43 PM on September 30, 2019 [2 favorites]


Read this the other day and thought it wasn’t bad. Plenty of people I know have been all “fuck this guy!” (sometimes for unclear reasons) about it. Frankly, it’s infinitely more my speed than some of my friends’ and colleagues’ average social media content, which varies from “today is the end of democracy” to “the planet is doomed” to “fuck [THING/GUY].” At least Chabon’s not part of the endless hate and misery parade, and he’s done some good in the world.
posted by cupcakeninja at 3:46 PM on September 30, 2019 [28 favorites]


similarly...
Perhaps we have noticed that the world with which we are familiar is collapsing.

The abrogation of responsibility, by those in positions of power towards those dependent upon them, is a leitmotif of our recent history: political, personal, professional and moral violation is endemic in contemporary culture.

The new world is struggling to be born, carrying passive repercussions of the past and facing active opposition from the old.

The future is in place, and waiting, but we have yet to discover it.

Our present position is the bridge between.

This position is hazardous, because we are building the bridge while crossing it.

A reasonable person might despair; but Hope is unreasonable.

Artists, musicians and poets deal in the unreasonable on a daily basis.

The living breath of our work is the invisible glue that holds together performer, audience and the song.

Redemption and repair, for those committed to serving the Creative Impulse, is an aspect of applied art and utterly practical.

Grace, readily available, simply experienced, beyond understanding, requires no reason to enter our lives: but does need a vehicle.
Robert Fripp
posted by j_curiouser at 4:10 PM on September 30, 2019 [13 favorites]


The rest of that Fripp link suggests strongly that he's still under the spell of Gurdjieff. There are worse people to follow I suppose.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 4:24 PM on September 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


Maybe what we really need to be doing is looking past comparatively pleasing and successful literary novelists for the kind of cultural stuff that will give us the nutrition we need to get through these challenging times.

This resonates with me. I feel like the vocabulary of the contemporary world has changed in the past three and a half years, and it's going to take new forms of creativity to deal with it, or at the very least explain it. It calls for new music, new texts, new visuals (online may already be taking care of this), and new art in general.

The essay reads a little nihilistic to me. Art is always possible, and while sometimes it's only documentation that a human was alive at the time it was created, sometimes it's a participant in history. Very rarely is it the vehicle of change, more often the sidecar of change, and even then quite rarely. But it can be, and it can help, and it keeps people thinking about new ways of seeing the world. The more art there is, the greater the number of perspectives that are prototyped, and thus the greater the number of people possibly finding more tools to think their way to desiring a better future.
posted by rhizome at 4:25 PM on September 30, 2019 [7 favorites]


Just the list of people he's mourned in the last 9 years won me over.

Chabon strikes me as so human. Not perfect. But good-hearted and one who chooses words with care. Which, you know, seems more and more important as the years go on.

I wonder whether he's considered that the timeline could've gone even more pear-shaped if the McDowell Colony hadn't been doing its thing so well for so long.

I just miss Ursula Le Guin a real lot.
posted by allthinky at 5:21 PM on September 30, 2019 [13 favorites]


I learned earlier today that Chabon was one of the writers on the John Carter movie which turned into such a fiasco.

But I'll always love him for Wonder Boys.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:45 PM on September 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


We told every single one of those three thousand artists, sincerely, that their work was important. We kept the internet at bay. We kept their friends and families at bay. We kept the world at bay, so that when their time here was up, they would return to that world fortified, in fuller possession of an authentic vision, and maybe even with a little bit of swagger in their souls.
well, clearly, they have tried their very best to make art accessible and meaningful to the unwashed masses. I guess it cannot be done

The essay I read feels half-done, maybe under-concerned, and less self-critical than it ought to be in spite of its self-proclaimed searching purpose, but this is a cheap and stupid take. Art at its best is challenging. That need not mean that it's inaccessible, but doing the challenging can be risky and scary, and providing an arena where such artists can safely extend themselves in preparation for that act isn't in and of itself some elitist cosplay. I'm sorry you need it to be so easy.
posted by invitapriore at 6:25 PM on September 30, 2019


Chabon strikes me as so human. Not perfect. But good-hearted and one who chooses words with care.

There are so many things about Chabon that should annoy me, but his writing gets right to my heart every time. He is like the anti-Franzen.
posted by sallybrown at 7:19 PM on September 30, 2019 [13 favorites]


When someone commits suicide, their survivors often blame themselves. This is the same kind of thing. You do what you can. To be an artist, you have to have the conviction that your work is making a difference, but, well, I love Surrealism, but their work in the 1930's didn't stop Hitler.
posted by kozad at 7:34 PM on September 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


well, clearly, they have tried their very best to make art accessible and meaningful to the unwashed masses. I guess it cannot be done

But that's just it - the problems he cites, the ways the world has gotten worse over the course of his tenure - how do those relate to art appreciation? I find it hard to believe that Chabon is naive enough to think that people who appreciate art or literature or even those who create great art and literature are thereby by definition compassionate people or progressive people or whatever kind of virtuous folk would, in his mind, have turned the tide on things like the election of Donald Trump or the ongoing climate crisis (much less the deaths of the literary figures he cites).

During the first couple of paragraphs it seemed to me that Chabon was agonizing over whether or not devoting all of his time to working with the MacDowell Colony had meant missing chances to help fight the dark trends he deplores. I was sort of expecting him to think about what he could have done - as someone with certain talents, certain connections, a certain societal visibility - to contribute to fighting those trends. Instead he seems to be shocked that working with the MacDowell Colony did not in and of itself contribute to that fight?

I mean, look - I process insurance claims. It has (I tell myself) some societal value. But I don't fool myself about whether or not my processing insurance claims is helping to unseat Donald Trump in 2020 or heal the planet or combat racism. It isn't. Not at all. I could become the most amazing claims processor this world has ever seen and it would not contribute towards those goals one iota. If I want to contribute to any of those fights, I need to cut time out of my leisure hours (or out of that sweet, wallet-stuffing overtime) to do stuff outside of work. Chabon might recoil at the analogy, but it's entirely possible - in my mind, very likely - that creating great art or literature doesn't meaningfully differ in this way from processing insurance claims, or being a garbage collector, or most other jobs in society. Whatever inherent value your day job might have, if you're going to try to combat big societal ills, you may very well need to carve out time off the clock.

Take Noam Chomsky. A great linguist, a man who is clearly passionate about linguistics and has devoted his life to it - but who nevertheless when push came to shove realized that "hey, no matter how great a linguist I am, it's not going to stop the Vietnam War. Or poverty and injustice and racism in this country." And so he has devoted a sizable chunk of his life, time that could have been spent researching and teaching linguistics, to doing advocacy and organizing protests and acting as a sort of amateur journalist uncovering the worst excesses of the American empire. He didn't just say, "well, the choices are find some way to do linguistics in a way that utterly destroys imperialism or just give up on fighting imperialism and heroically resign myself to just doing linguistics".

Which are apparently the only options Chabon sees.* He ends the essay with a meditation on how the only choice here is to give up art in despair or to resign himself to keep on doing what we do: Making and consuming art. No room here for thinking hard about whether to make the sacrifice of giving up a bit of making and consuming art in order to put that time and energy into something that will meaningfully affect the problems he spent the first couple of paragraphs being so deeply troubled by.

So yeah, I don't doubt Chabon's a good writer but it's kind of a frustrating read.



* Going just by this essay - I haven't read much else by him and parts of this are...weirdly goofy (the Large Hadron Collider thing, for example), so it's hard to judge just how serious he's being or whether this represents the fullness of his views on the subject.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:45 PM on September 30, 2019 [19 favorites]


My hot take: he's tired of fundraising, and he feels a little guilty about leaving because of that.
posted by thelonius at 7:50 PM on September 30, 2019 [4 favorites]


He ends the essay with a meditation on how the only choice here is to give up art in despair or to resign himself to keep on doing what we do: Making and consuming art. No room here for thinking hard about whether to make the sacrifice of giving up a bit of making and consuming art in order to put that time and energy into something that will meaningfully affect the problems he spent the first couple of paragraphs being so deeply troubled by.

yes a lot of artists love to think that fulfilling their responsibilities as artists is the artist's special way of fulfilling the responsibilities of a citizen. writers especially. it would be nice if you could do your two essential jobs at the same time, unlike most everybody else, and sometimes you can, but most of the time you can't.

the human condition is a lot of work

(I like a rhetorical flourish as much as anybody and more than some, but I hope he is only flourishing, I hope it occurred to him LONG before he wrote this that he was 'wrong, he'd always been wrong' that art's proper function is to exert power over the world and its systems. what a horrible dream to have ever dreamed.)
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:32 PM on September 30, 2019 [6 favorites]


I was going to post something about Bethlehem being there and something moving toward it, perhaps hunched over while it moved... but I've gotten distracted.
posted by hippybear at 10:00 PM on September 30, 2019


Art is humanity's cultural memory bank, sparse and filled with vast holes, constantly eaten away by entropy. It is a collection of our conscious and unconscious dreams at a point in time, not much more. Artists who make art in the present moment may believe it is more than that, out of hubris, or narcissism, or an inflated sense of their place and situation in history and society, but all artists will die, as all other people do, and all that will be left is the art. If Chabon is lucky, there will be people in generations to come who will be literate and able to appreciate his work. If he is unlucky, his work will be forgotten, as virtually all art has been since the dawn of humanity. The point, if there is one, is maybe to create something that is worth remembering.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 11:08 PM on September 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


This essay is frustrating because it seems to be using "Art" as an upper-case noun that almost means, "creative output that is good." However all art has a commercial dimension, even art made outside of the commercial realm. People pay for it, or they sponsor it, or they choose to support art that is intentionally non-commercial. From this commercial perspective, it's interesting that Chabon never examines the goals and ethics of those million and billionaire donors who kept his foundation afloat.

In a society that supports creativity with the largesse of a person or institution with more money than they can ever conceivably spend in a lifetime, what sort of change do we reasonably expect for them to allow "Art" to make? The same can be said of academia - billionaire donors seeking an indulgence, amoral corporations looking for publicity and tax, and large-scale "defense" minded government programs who want new tech on the cheap are never going to knowingly or willingly sign the check on a project that seeks to destroy them.

Likewise (with the bizarre operating definition of the term) it seems to ignore popular culture, which does indeed have demonstrable effects on public consciousness. Popular opinion changes when it sees an openly gay person on TV with a relatable face and bubbly personality, or when it sees a whole region of the world demonized as an unstoppable (but for the grace of Jack Bauer) menace. Some of the most beautiful classical uppercase Art you might pop in to see at the Met was commissioned by some of the most correspondingly brutal colonial regimes in history.

In the end he goes to "well, let's just keep making art because it connects us," which is fine, for what it's worth, but I think a more interesting essay would actually make an honest attempt at addressing the social system of "Art" and also examine the structures that make social change through "Art" extremely difficult, instead of a lot of grandiose posturing that resolves in the conclusion that him and his friends are the real heroes after all.
posted by codacorolla at 8:14 AM on October 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


And there is most definitely an art in what Chomsky has made of himself. Maybe that's what's hard to grasp from the artist side: Chomsky reaching out from the academic world to creative modes of dissent, vs. reaching from the creative world into affecting the practical realities we live in.

The protest world is in DIRE need of good slogans, picket messages, narratives, and other feet-on-the-ground things that working fiction writers usually don't do unless a President pays them a nice salary to do it to their speeches. I don't know if they see this as dumbing-down and stifling of their true artist nature, but again, how do you think Chomsky feels answering the same dorm-stoner questions for 40 years?
posted by rhizome at 8:57 AM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


his work will be forgotten, as virtually all art has been since the dawn of humanity. The point, if there is one, is maybe to create something that is worth remembering.

I don't see it this way. I agree that the artist will be forgotten, or even if they're remembered, it will be in some inaccurate way. But the work itself, if it's strong enough, sweet enough, beautiful enough, weird enough, wild enough, ANYTHING enough ... to make an impression. Well, that impression will affect things, because by definition it will have affected a human being, changed their mood, their day, maybe their entire world view. But even it's just their mood, that will affect other things which will affect other things ... and so on. Art is like a bunch of a butterflies, I guess, flapping hard perchance to ignite hurricanes.
posted by philip-random at 9:13 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


The protest world is in DIRE need of good slogans, picket messages, narratives

It's a tough nut to crack, what with narrative itself being inherently conservative.
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:30 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


"All art has a commercial dimension" - nope, art is what an artist makes. Many make art just for themselves.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:45 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


"All art has a commercial dimension" - nope, art is what an artist makes. Many make art just for themselves.

Ah, I hadn't considered that. Good point.

A few questions: how do people gain skills to make that art for themselves? How do they purchase the materials to create that art? How do they have an understanding of other art in the genre that they're creating within? Do they have an understanding of that genre because of the galleries, and concerts, and showings, and publications that they've seen have been... broadcast to them in some fashion? Oh - how do they have time to create art? Do they have a job that allows them ample room for a hobby? Or, as in the very point of the article, are they unable to find time to create in between supporting themselves?

How do they reach an audience with that art? Surely, since the essay is talking about the political impacts of art (thereby implying an audience to be swayed one way or another), that's important. Who funds the dissemination or display of that art? Who chooses what gets disseminated and what doesn't, or what counts as obscene, or inflammatory, or worthy of censure? I wonder if that's decided by people with existing power within a society... perhaps power that's obtained through material wealth?

But you're right, I suppose that art that's create from scratch, without reference to any other work, to never be seen by an audience, with nothing but pure creative force motivating it doesn't have a commercial dimension.
posted by codacorolla at 10:25 AM on October 1, 2019


I think that assertion can be tweaked into validity: "all art can be commercialized."
posted by rhizome at 10:32 AM on October 1, 2019


All children are artists. Anything that might come later - judging, evaluating, shaping, commercializing - is optional.

Separately, I'm surprised at some of the negative comments in response to Chabon's sweet piece. He clearly was trying to find a way out of his despair, via discussing his own experience and his own sense of the reason for and value of art. Even in these fraught times - especially in such times - I am loathe to tell anyone else "You're not doing the right things! You're not doing enough!"
posted by PhineasGage at 11:34 AM on October 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


Somehow I suspect he will survive mild criticism on a site he doubtless doesn't even know exists.
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:50 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


"Perhaps the birth of art will take place at the moment in which the last man who is willing to make a living out of art is gone and gone forever." —Charles Ives
posted by joseph_elmhurst at 12:44 PM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


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